One day after Immigration and Customs Enforcement flights took off and landed in Yakima, officials were trying to figure out if the federal agency intended to regularly use its city-owned airport after being spurned by King County.
“I’m kind of in the dark,” said Mayor Kathy Coffey.
City Manager Cliff Moore went to the Yakima Air Terminal/McAllister Field on Tuesday morning to see the so-called ICE Air flights for himself, and gave his card to an agent who promised to pass it on to a supervisor. “I have not heard from that person,” Moore said.
ICE is not publicly answering questions about its intentions beyond a vague statement. “U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has available, and has utilized, a variety of transportation options to achieve its mission requirements,” emailed spokeswoman Tanya Roman. Late Wednesday, however, she released another statement criticizing “policy makers who strive to make it more difficult to remove dangerous criminal aliens.” The statement cited 10 examples since 2014 of people suspected or convicted of criminal charges, including rape and murder, recently deported from Washington state.
As reported by the University of Washington Center for Human Rights, ICE has for years used King County International Airport, better known as Boeing Field, to fly out immigrants who are being deported, and to bring in others bound for the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. In the last eight years, ICE has taken away roughly 34,000 people via Boeing Field, according to the center’s research.
Last week, under pressure from King County Executive Dow Constantine, a company that had been providing fueling and other services to the ICE flights said it would no longer do so. Two other companies capable of providing the same services said they wouldn’t so either, effectively shutting ICE out of Boeing Field.
Rob Peterson, the director of Yakima’s airport, got a call Sunday from a charter company working for ICE asking if the facility “was an open, public use airport,” according to an email Moore sent to City Council members. It is, the company was told. The next day, the city learned that subcontractor Swift Air would be arriving Tuesday with 40 immigrants en route to the Tacoma detention center, and leaving the same day with 92 detainees on a flight to El Paso, Texas.
Watching the process play out over nearly two hours, Moore saw detainees wearing handcuffs and shackles, and being frisked by ICE officers before they boarded the plane or a bus bound for Tacoma.
An agent told the city manager those being deported had lost asylum cases, and after arriving in El Paso would either be flown to Mexico City, or walked across the border to Juarez, depending on where in Mexico they were from.
“I represent a district in the city that is going to be alert and alarmed about any ICE activity,” said Yakima City Councilmember Dulce Gutiérrez. The district has many Latino immigrants. Still, she said, so far the media is more interested in these flights than the locals.
Moore said no city official has approached him about blocking ICE, as Constantine did, raising human-rights concerns about deportations. Yakima’s legal department is nevertheless looking into whether it would have the ability to do so. The city’s contract with the company providing services to flights has a non-discrimination clause, Moore pointed out. And grant agreements with the Federal Aviation Administration – amounting to $18 million over the last eight years – may carry a similar obligation.
ICE already has an established bus route between Yakima and the Northwest Detention Center because several Western states send detained immigrants to the Yakima County jail, to be held temporarily before being transported to the Tacoma facility, according to Phil Neff, program coordinator of the UW Center for Human Rights.